P ASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. -- This town has been chastened. It has been pummeled, bested and obliterated.

A dozen sports-story headlines come to mind, incongruous thoughts at such a time, seeing my graceful, former town reduced to this. But the only way to comprehend the incomprehensible is to focus somehow. I am trying.

Signs are everywhere, except on Interstate 10 where the huge casino billboards for neighboring Bay St. Louis are nothing but bent poles or skeletal remains. East of here, in Biloxi, the billboards advertise businesses that no longer exist, tout entertainers who were scheduled to croon or clown back in September. Nobody's singing or laughing now. And this far west, the billboards are completely gone.

But I'm not talking billboards. The new signs are mostly handmade, such as crudely rendered street signs on bits of plywood, nailed to posts so that residents can recognize what they used to know so well.

"Menge. Seal. Scenic."

My old street is Second, once the perfect blend of humble and regal residential, business and commerce. The Pass Christian Mardi Gras parade rolled right past my front porch. Beads hung in the live-oak trees along Second all year long.

Before Katrina, you could see through the cross streets to the Mississippi Sound, the bluest blue imaginable on a sunny day. Now you don't have to be at a cross street to see the blue. The mansions that were between Second and the Gulf are mostly gone.

Residents in the Pass often are poets at heart, loving yard art, whimsy and houses of Easter-egg colors. The strictest city ordinances concern trees -- you don't cut down a live oak or a magnolia -- and imaginations soar.

Today, Second is a war zone, and my old street lost.

They found two more bodies in the Pass a week ago, more than three months since Katrina hit. That gives you some idea of how far these poor people have to go before normalcy returns.

Bent metal, piles of concrete, stacks of bricks, rubbish mountains, ditches full of ruined appliances, picketless fences, bare trees, downed trees, misplaced houses, gutted houses and no houses where houses used to be. The old Martin Hardware store is simply a pile of what it used to sell.

"Santa, I'm Right Here!"

That's the sign over a travel trailer, one of many situated on lots where houses are gone, or too far gone to inhabit. A woman sits in a plastic lawn chair outside the trailer, sifting through a tangle of something -- it's hard to tell what. Across Second from her trailer, a makeshift beer store has sprung up and is doing a brisk business.

"Report Littering!"

The Pass before Katrina was one of those rare places that had acute pride in its appearance, though certainly not all of its residents are wealthy and privileged. City clubs established a wildflower garden, for instance, where you could walk, picnic and enjoy nature for free. The mansions along Scenic all had majestic and manicured grounds, but the everyday yards were the biggest delight. They had color -- and character.

"Camille Who?"

That sign is succinct and profound. Pass Christian was the Mississippi Gulf Coast town hit hardest by 1969's Hurricane Camille. Nobody here thought they'd live to die in anything worse.

The sun is out today. The Sound is still that crystal blue that makes your heart skip a beat. The shorn live oaks are leafing out again. The indigenous beauty that won't be killed is rearing its weary head. And the people are somehow clawing out of the worst calamity ever to hit this town, this entire region.

That's the most amazing sign of all.

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